Sex & Relationships

The Anti-Male, Anti-Sex Falsehoods That Rule Discussions about Porn and Sexuality

The latest missive in the war against porn, courtesy of the Atlantic, presents male sexual desire as brutish and violent. Really?


Thanks to the Internet, porn is ubiquitous. Thanks to the demands of web traffic, panicky articles about the impact of porn are getting to be that way too.

A common narrative goes like this: Porn used to come in two varieties -- the genteel erotica of Playboy, where women dressed like rabbits introduced boys to sex in magazines pilfered from dad's collection, and the filthier stuff that lived in cum-stained whack-off booths patronized by perverts. The explosion of Internet smut in the 2000s smashed those two worlds together. Teen boys, your mom, your husband, and worried writers could now land in porn pits filled with dirty, hardcore sex just by typing "" into their browsers.

In these alarmist critiques, the rise of easily accessible hardcore is deemed bad across the board: bad for sex workers, bad for women desperate to sexually please their porn-crazed boyfriends or husbands, and bad bad bad for the "weak" male psyche.

Criticisms of porn are not without value, of course. Everything has an effect on our weak, malleable psyches these days, so why not pornography? Like mainstream popular culture in general, a lot of porn is rife with sexist, racist and classist stereotypes. While many porn actors defend the industry and insist that they, and not cultural critics, get to decide what to do with their bodies, there are also former sex workers who speak out against the abuses and inequities that plague porn production.

All that said, many of the pieces that decry porn's impact on the populations allegedly most vulnerable to its harms come off as needlessly prudish and alarmist about sex. Even worse, many end up trafficking in some pretty nasty assumptions about gender and sexuality themselves.

This month's contribution to the genre, published in theAtlantic, continues in that vein. Like many articles of this type, "Hardcore," written by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, is characterized by an obsession with anal sex. As in, everyone from teen girls to your square neighbors is allegedly having tons of it. These fanatic sodomites were inspired by the prevalence of this once-taboo practice in porn. Says Vargas-Cooper:

"Porn’s new pervasiveness and influence on the culture at large haven’t necessarily introduced anything new into our sexual repertoire: humans, after all, have been having sex—weird, debased, and otherwise—for quite a while. But pervasive hard-core porn has allowed many people to flirt openly with practices that may have always been desired, but had been deeply buried under social restraint."

But the article goes beyond puzzling over the impact of porn on society or the minds of teenage males, and more ambitiously promises to show "how the new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women."

In a nutshell, the so-called "truths" the article purports to unveil are these: men's natural desires are predatory and aggressive. Women's sexual needs are the inverse of male desires, or something -- actually, she never quite describes female desire as a thing that exists on its own; just that it stands in opposition to the male sex drive, locking the sexes in eternal battle. "Men, so the conventional wisdom goes, tend to desire more than women are willing to give them sexually. The granting of sex is the most powerful weapon women possess in their struggle with men."

In this timeless war (also called a "warring dynamic based on power and subjugation") men are described as pretty nasty foes. "Male sexuality as an often dark force streaked with aggression," she contends. Hardcore porn is revealing in that it's, "overpowering and immediate; it is the brute force of male sexuality, unmasked and untethered."

While sex is great and all, it's also "largely driven by brute male desire and therefore not at all free of violent, even cruel, urges."

"Pornography," she writes, "with its garish view of male sexual desire, bares an uncomfortable truth that the women’s-liberation movement has successfully suppressed: men and women have conflicting sexual agendas."

Really? What about women who are on board with a more aggressive sexuality? Or men who are notaggressively sexual? Or men who are, but who instead of unleashing their "demonic" sexuality on unsuspecting virgins, like to hang out with women in the first group?

Sex blogger Violet Blue told AlterNet that not only does the piece misrepresent the huge variety of porn out there, but the huge variety of sexual experiences across genders. "Frankly I don't know what's worse: the 'all males are aggressively, dangerously sexual' undertone or that it maintains that all women are sexual victims. Both value sets are harmful to perpetuate, in addition to being false."

Cooper Fleishman, an editor at the Good Men Project-- a web magazine founded to counter the trite and offensive depictions of masculinity and male sexuality in mainstream culture -- points out that there is such a thing as safe, consensual exploration of power dynamics, for both men and women. "Men who fantasize about rough sex and act out those fantasies consensually don't deserve the stigma of brutishness or violence or rape behavior," he says.

What's more, Vargas-Cooper's depiction of desire is not only false, but sexist and harmful, particularly in its implication that men are ruled by uncontrollable biological urges. "Women don't contend with insurmountable urges to breed; likewise, men aren't slaves to some compulsion to dominate and subjugate," says Fleishman.

Vargas-Cooper ties it all together with an anecdote about an unpleasant one-night stand she had with a man she describes as "a polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment" (What!? He wasn't a filthy poor person?) who manipulated her into having anal sex after he couldn't get it up:

I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

It's pretty bizarre for a writer to peg universal "truths" about men and woman on a one-night stand gone wrong. But her argument about the complexity of sex is interesting, and points to a path the article could have taken if it weren't obsessed with demonizing men, bashing porn (and talking about anal sex). The piece actually makes a few interesting points, the way that articles about sex and/or pop culture always do when they appear in magazines like the Atlantic. People like Martin Amis and Susan Sontag (the patron saint of pop culture writing in fancy magazines) are enlisted for quotes like this: “Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness." Had Vargas-Cooper stuck to sexuality in general without vilifying heterosexual male desire, the piece could have been a smart discussion of the difficulty of marrying political ideals to the complex, personal world of sex.

The Sontag quote encapsulates that point: sexuality is too messy to be neatly controlled by preset political ideas. Vargas-Cooper points to the shortcomings of past efforts to mold sexual relationships according to progressive politics. The sexual revolution of the 1970s, she points out, did not create a utopian, egalitarian dynamic between the sexes. In many cases, it meant freedom for men to screw around without social constraints, while women were free to raise the out-of-wedlock kids that resulted. She argues that the PC culture of the '90s may have led feminist women to think prematurely that sexual equality could be achieved with strategies like explicit communication about relationships and their boundaries.

I disagree with her painting feminists as naive to all the work that needs to be done to achieve sexual equality (have you ever met a feminist who said, "Hooray, everything's perfect now!"). But she does demonstrate that while political ideology is good at a lot of things, it's not a magic bullet that can override thousands of years of societal constrictions that command very different sexual roles for men and women -- at least in only four short decades.

Sex is just not naturally PC, and having adequately progressive politics does not mean men -- or women -- automatically shed the misogynist ideas found in every corner of our culture: screwed up sexual messages that demand men be sex-desperate aggressors, that women play hard to get, that promiscuous women don't have value, that propagate the "virgin/slut" dichotomy. These messages are hard to shake because they're so intimate and deeply ingrained.

The unfortunate thing about articles like Vargas-Cooper's is that they not only reproduce these harmful narratives, but offer a ready-made excuse for not trying to change the problems that do exist in male and female sexual dynamics.

Tana Ganeva is an AlterNet editor. Follow her on Twitter. You can email her at [email protected].